Little J & Big Cuz is the most important show on television

Kids are obsessive creatures. At the moment my five year-old is hooked on the ABC animation Little J & Big Cuz. If you don’t spend a lot of your time overhearing children’s television programs, let me explain: Little J & Big Cuz follows the adventures of the title characters, aged five and nine, in their outback community. Little J & Big Cuz live with Nana and Old Dog (who has caused debate amongst my kids as to whether he is actually talking out loud or the audience just happens to be privy to his musings). As described by its creators: ‘Little J and Big Cuz are busy with the ups and downs of playground and classroom. There’s always something surprising going on, whether it’s at school, in the backyard or beyond… With the help on Nanna and Ms Chen, Little J and Big Cuz are finding out all about culture, community and country.’  It is the first Australian animation aimed at an Indigenous audience with almost exclusively Indigenous characters. It was created by Indigenous director Tony Thorne and written by Indigenous writers from across the country. The cast features celebrated actors such as Deborah Mailman and Miranda Tapsell. actf_news_little_j_big_cuz_premiere

While the show may be aimed at a young Indigenous audience, it has picked up a significant number of non-Indigenous viewers like my son, who was introduced to it at preschool, where there has been a strong focus on Indigenous culture and history recently. For example, the kids recently experienced an Aboriginal smoking ceremony and now begin each day with an acknowledgement of country. My son doesn’t view Little J & Big Cuz as a show about Aboriginal people. He views it as a show about people. He doesn’t seem to have a partition between white and black cultures, instead he relates strongly to the character of Little J because they are both five and interact with the world the way five year-olds do. The show is important foremost because it gives Indigenous kids the opportunity to see themselves reflected in story, something intrinsically valuable to all children and young people, but its impact on non-Indigenous kids cannot be overstated.

Storytelling is vital to human experience because it gives the gift of empathy. It allows audiences to view the world through the eyes of someone else. It breaks down the barriers between ‘us and them’, barriers which cause unending amounts of suffering throughout the world and all human existence. It demolishes modes of dehuminisation.

While watching Little J & Big Cuz I cannot help but contrast my son’s childhood interaction and experience of Indigenous culture and history with my own. I, like many of us, was a kid in a time before welcome to country statements were introduced in a significant and widespread way. My first earliest memory of learning about Aboriginal culture is a lesson in year two about why there is an Aboriginal man on the two dollar coin, I don’t remember anything after that until year six when an Indigenous elder visited, showed us how to throw a boomerang and played the didgeridoo. He spoke about how men were allowed to play, but not women. Most of the student chatter afterwards was about how sexist he was.

Australian history was taught through the lens of white experience: Captain Cook founded our country, the ‘first settlers’ were a bunch of white blokes who arrived in boats and carried guns. In year eight  there was a brief module in history class about the suffering inflicted on the Indigenous population by the early settlers. It was an awkward, stilted chapter in our history textbook. (Fortunately it was my art teacher who gave the most powerful and vital insight into Indigenous history and experience. She did it through artworks, most significantly Gordon Bennet’s Outsider.)

By contrast, my son is taught about the impact of white settlement on Sorry Day, he is given the opportunity to be immersed in Indigenous stories and culture, he can recite the story of how birds got their colours whenever we see a rainbow lorikeet. He does not view Indigenous people as victims, instead he is educated in their history beyond the genocide which was suffered at the hands of white man. He sees Little J as like himself: a five year-old boy who likes adventures. He knows Little J’s life is a bit different to his own, but these differences bring curiosity rather than animosity in a way which can only be achieved through that most vital part of human experience: story.

The work in healing the wounds inflicted upon Indigenous people by white man is not done and probably never will be, but stories like that of Little J and Big Cuz are a vital ingredient to the process.

Little J & Big Cuz can be found on ABC2 and iView. More information can be found at https://www.littlejandbigcuz.com.au/

CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers – THE PROTECTED

CBCA#1Yep, this is a thing that happened. I still haven’t seen the Book of the Year sticker on the actual cover of the book, maybe it will feel more real when I do! In the meantime here’s my acceptance speech….

I often say that I write for my seventeen year-old-self, right now my seventeen year-old-self is standing here saying ‘What the frig? How did this happen?’ I’m the kid who had a panic attack in the middle of her first HSC English exam and left. I’m not here because of the wonders of our education system, I am a glitch in the system. I’ve had the opportunity to visit a number of high schools recently and I’m not sure all that much has changed. When it comes to education we are very concerned with rankings and bell curves.  It’s worth noting that I was discouraged from taking on what was then called three unit Related English because my ranking wasn’t high enough. We want our kids to perform. We teach them to play Tchaikovsky by rote, but disable their ability to write their own music. I had teachers who fought against the obsession with marks and rankings and focused on nurturing my creativity, but I think that is like trying to light a candle in a cyclone, if you will allow me to get a bit Elton John.

I must thank my darling dad who told me over and over again that creativity was immeasurably valuable and must be held on to. I must thank my mum who gave the me stubbornness and determination required to pursue an artistic path.

Creative minds are vulnerable and mine has caused it’s fair share of problems, I would not have survived, much less written any books without the love and support of my husband, Nathan. Of course my thanks also go to my Publisher Kristina Schultz at UQP and my editor and coconspirator Kristy Bushnell.

I will finish by saying that this wonderful award does not qualify me to go into schools and give students the formula for a good piece of writing. I have no interest in improving their rankings. It does qualify me to visit high schools, look those kids in the eye — the off-beat ones, the weird ones, the ones who haven’t done that Biology assignment but have written 67,000 words, sometimes on their phones — and tell them that they will be okay.   To the Children’s Book Council: thank you for this award, I can not tell you how much this means to me, especially seventeen year old me.

Cutting the giant cake - a job I am well qualified for.

Cutting the giant cake – a job I am well qualified for.

Book Trailer Bonanza!

A couple of months ago I had the privilege of visiting Mount St Benedict College in Sydney to talk all things books and writing with some of the students there. It was pretty great because, not only were the girls delightful, but they also gave me cake.

As part of the activities leading up to the visit, the girls were invited to make book trailers for The Sky So Heavy, with the prize for the top three being lunch and cake-eating with me. I was also asked to pick a winner, which was tricky as they are all fabulous. Eventually I went with the entry by Grace Nicholson. I promised I would put links to the trailers up on my (much neglected) blog. So here they are. The first one is by Emily James. The second by Sarah Assaf. And finally, the winning entry by Grace Nicholson.

Enjoy!

Somerset: students, lamingtons and book cakes.

It’s taken me ten days to write this post because I have been having festival withdrawals. I find the weeks following a festival difficult. It’s hard returning to a life that does not include a buffet breakfast every day and constant book-centred conversations. You see, two weeks ago I was at the Somerset Celebration of Literature, held by Somerset College in Queensland. Basically the people of Somerset believe that books are so great they should be celebrated annually with three days of author talks, giant stationary sculptures and poffertjes (dutch pancake things that should probably be illegal.) There were also books made out of cake. In my opinion this is a feature grossly neglected by other literature festivals.unnamed-1

From the reactions of most of the students it’s fair to say they thought the whole thing was pretty freaking great. I agreed. The closest thing I ever experienced to something like this was when Mem Fox came to visit my school when I was in year one. I was so overwhelmed with awe that I couldn’t meet her, I just sat trembling in a corner gazing in her general direction in a way which is really only excusable if you are six.

To me, writers were like movie stars. In fact, if offered the choice between seeing Mem Fox or some megawatt Hollywood star face-to-face, I’m sure I would have chosen the woman who invented the disappearing possum.

Twenty six years later I am only marginally better at keeping it together in the company of authors. I find that I enter a surreal, hyper head space where I need little sleep and tremble constantly from excitement. I have come to know this as Festival Syndrome. Let’s be honest, I spend most of my time either alone staring at a computer screen or conversing with two small humans whose idea of a good time is to see how much spaghetti they can force up their noses. So any adult conversation is generally stimulation overload for me. At festivals these conversations tend to involve my favourite people: writers and readers. So yeah, my brain tends to go a bit haywire.unnamed

The thing that is so brilliant about Somerset (other than the book-cakes) is it’s all about the students. Most literary festivals have a couple of days worth of events for students before getting on to the real serious business of adult books for adult audiences. Don’t get me wrong, I will happily talk to anyone about books and writing with a microphone. I don’t care how old they are, it’s a privilege. But my favourite people to talk about this stuff with are teenagers. The Somerset Celebration acknowledges the wonderful truth that the books we read as youngens can shape us for the rest of our lives. It acknowledges the fact that young people are important, their ideas are important, their brains are important. It also does something else quite wonderful in that it takes a group of writers and plonks them fair and square in the middle of the school’s life. We wander around between talks eating poffertjes and fairy floss and are encouraged to mingle with the students.

I didn’t get to casually mingle with authors when I was at school. I came to view them as  etherial beings with unobtainable literary super-powers and it took me a good seven years after school to even begin to imagine that I could be a writer. It seems to me that one of the things young, aspiring writers need most is encouragement. They need to know that people who do this for a living often write crap. They need to know that everyone finds writing stories difficult. They need to know they they don’t need special super-powers to be writers. There is no better way to learn these things than by asking an author face to face. (And if the said author is feeling brave enough, they may even share some of their early, particularly bad writing.)

But for me it works both ways. I get as much of a kick out of meeting readers as they get out of meeting authors.

The opportunity to meet with ones readers is pretty great if you are like me and still have trouble comprehending the idea that you even have readers. (This isn’t something that necessarily wears off, so Thomas (NAME DROP) Keneally told me.) It’s great to read positive reviews written by adults. But they aren’t really who I write for. Nothing quite compares with being told – in person- by a scruffy, surly teenager that your book is ‘heaps good’. From time to time I have entertained the idea of abandoning YA to focus on writing stories about adults for adults. But Somerset reminded me why I write for teenagers: because for some reason (probably only understood by psychoanalysts) it is their opinion which I value the most.

At Somerset I met some amazing authors, many of whom I have admired for a long time. But the highlight of the festival, for me, was meeting a small group who had travelled six hours on a bus from their remote town to come to the festival. They came to see me speak in the morning and then flagged me down when I was on my way to get more poffertjes. Some had read The Sky So Heavy and liked it enough to want photos. With me. They talked about their favourite characters with an affection that I haven’t witnessed in anyone other than … myself. It was magic. No adult could ever match the enthusiasm these kids had for the book. They gave me lamingtons.

And if you remember anything about Possum Magic, you will understand why this is significant.

 

National Young Writers’ Festival: Stories, Smoke Machines and Yoof

Greetings readers. Apologies for the ridiculously long time between posts. I have been away on holiday for three weeks, a terrible thing to do because one inevitably has to come home again. However, I was lucky enough to spend the weekend up in Newcastle for the NYWF. There is nothing better than spending time talking with intelligent people about writing, especially when one has a microphone.

Just to clear up any misconceptions, a writers’ festival is not where a writer stands beside piles of their own book, with a microphone and amp, spruiking like a verbose and vaguely hipster version of a Bing Lee salesperson at Christmastime. Rather a large group of verbose and overtly hipster people gather to discuss various topics to do with writing, whilst other people listen. It’s more fun than it sounds. There’s beer involved.

Amongst the vastly talented people I heard speak and even spoke to (!) were Lachlan Brown, Summer Land, Amy Gray, Pip Smith, Kaitlyn Plyley, Eliza Sarlos, Tom Ballard… You get the idea. It was pretty much the best weekend of my entire life. But the best part? The students doing the Younger Young Writers’ program. They were the most annoyingly talented teenagers I have ever met and it would be easy to hate them but for the fact they were so unrelentingly eager.

I found these young folk particularly endearing. Probably something to do with the fact that they wrote down nearly everything I said, which has never happened to me outside of a cafe/restaurant environment. On Saturday myself and several other writers spent a few hours workshopping some of their stories and giving life advice like: ‘Ignore everything your parents/teachers advise you and study writing and literature at uni’, ‘Abandon your plans to become a lawyer and instead study writing and literature at uni’, ‘Some universities will throw money at you to get you to come study with them’ and ‘Being a writer is the most important and rewarding job in the universe and writers are fabulous people’. The last couple may or may not be true, but the students seemed to believe us.

I’m going to sound terribly old (as opposed to when I shouted at one of them, ‘Tori Amos is the greatest vocalist to have ever lived! You need to listen to Little Earthquakes IMMEDIATELY! I have it on tape!!!’) but I really wish I had the chance to do something like the YYW program when I was at school. The closest thing for us was Tornament of the Minds where six of us were selected to be locked in a room at a university for three hours and come up with a pantomine based around a Shakespeare quote; with only a packet of pipe cleaners and an old toilet roll to make all our costumes and set. After which we would perform our ‘play’ for a panel of judges including academics from said university. I was eleven. Torment of the Minds would have been a more apt title.

It seemed like when I was in school everything was either a competition or a test. As part of the Younger Young Writers’ program, these kids got to spend four days listening to writers speak about their work, interspersed with writing sessions where they got to work on their own stuff. The material they worked on was workshopped with professional writers. No one gave them a score. No one attributed a number or percentage to them based on their work. They weren’t shut in a room, seated in rows and told to produce a piece of creative writing  while the clock ticked and a supervisor paced. How the hell are you supposed to be creative under those conditions, let alone inspired?

The YYW program was a format that seemed to suit all sorts of personalities: the extroverts who ranted about their loathing of post modernism; the quiet ones who scribbled with a hand covering their work; the ones who can read that elf language that Tolkien made up. The writing that I read showed they had felt confident enough to experiment and go with their instincts, something that is very difficult to achieve in a classroom. We discussed Harry Potter and Austen. We argued about Fantasy and musical theatre. Their writing was clever and self aware. Some of it was witty, some downright scary – I read a sentence in one student’s horror story which made my stomach turn.

At various events held by the National Young Writers’ Festival I heard a lot of inspiring people discuss everything from the impact of isolation on creativity, to how not to be a douche when ones career starts to take off. I read and listened to short stories in the tunnels of Fort Scratchley with Penguin Plays Rough and met amazing people at the festival party with an over-active smoke machine. But – and I think you can guess where I’m going with this – the best part was sitting and talking to those kids talk about writing.

Bring on YYW 2014.